February 10, 2011

One man's trash is another man's science song

Our featured science story of the week is Turning garbage into gas (from The Economist).
Appropriately tweaked, the destruction of organic materials (including paper and plastics) by plasma torches produces a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen called syngas. That, in turn, can be burned to generate electricity. Add in the value of the tipping fees that do not have to be paid if rubbish is simply vaporised, plus the fact that energy prices in general are rising, and plasma torches start to look like a plausible alternative to burial.

A science song that aligns fairly well with this story is "Making biogas is a gas, gas, gas" by T. H. Culhane. Note, however, the difference between syngas, discussed in the article, and biogas, discussed in the song. The gases produced are different -- syngas is carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen (H2), while biogas usually consists mostly of methane (CH4) -- and they are produced by different processes, with biogas arising from the metabolism of living organisms such as bacteria.

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